A Price That Minimizes Risk

Do pricing trends in music and books have any resonance for news and, in particular, investigative journalists?

When Amazon.com recently made a new album by Explosions in the Sky available for $2.99 for 24 hours, it caught my attention.

Until then, I hadn’t bought any of the band’s albums. I’d been mildly interested in EitS since it played an episode of Austin City Limits, but given my limited music-purchase budget, I hadn’t prioritized one of its albums over buying new releases by my favorite artists.

But $2.99 made it too easy. I clicked “buy.”

Later, I thought about the psychology of the buy. Why did $2.99 win me when $4.99 or $5.99 might not have? As I type, the price is back up to $7.99 for a download. Had I stumbled on that title today at that price, I would have passed.

But $2.99 hooked me. Why?

Here’s what I came up with: That was a price I was willing to risk on an artist who, to me, was an unknown quantity.

I’m one of those consumers who doesn’t like to take risks, especially with the very subjective love-it-or-loathe-it world of music. I read reviews, I check sound clips and I watch videos on YouTube. But still I feel uneasy dropping $10 or $15 on music I’m not sure I’ll like. But $2.99? I’ll risk it and not feel horrible if the album’s a dud.

Yes, I’m picky — and tightfisted. But it comes from history. I remember vinyl and browsing stacks of 12-inch LPs in record stores. They were shrink-wrapped, and I couldn’t hear the music without buying it. All I had was the album cover, song titles and liner notes. More than once, after spending the equivalent of $14 to $18 in today’s dollars on an album, I didn’t like it once I put it on the turntable. Ouch. To this day, I want to be convinced that I’ll like an artist before I invest $15 on an album.

But at $2.99, the risk of pain is low.

Understanding this about my own consumer behavior helped me realize that, for me, the likelihood of value must be higher than the risk of pain.

Low risk equals easier buying decisions, and that can equal profits. USA TODAY’s Carol Memmott recently wrote about the growing number of authors who are self-publishing e-books and doing a brisk business selling them for 99 cents to $2.99.

Valuing the news — minimizing risk

Aside from paywall efforts and subscription models, the news industry currently gives away most everything for free. But is there something to be learned from what’s happening in music and books? Is there journalism that offers a perceived value at a price worth risking?

Some of this is happening:

The non-profit ProPublica has been selling stories as Kindle Singles for 99 cents each, including The Wall Street Money Machine and Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story. Reader reviews are positive, and both stories place high on Amazon’s niche best-seller rankings.

ProPublica describes the pieces as “longer than almost all magazine articles, but shorter than traditional books,” which immediately pegs them as narrative pieces not too far afield from the novels and nonfiction that e-book device owners are increasingly snapping up.

The New York Times published its Wikileaks coverage as an e-book, Open Secrets.

Interestingly enough, among the reader comments for those e-books are several observations that much of the material is available already for free. What if it weren’t? Would people buy?


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